Officials Warn of Possibility of Attack Around Sept. 11
New York Times | August 11, 2005
By ERIC LICHTBLAU and WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM
A group of F.B.I. counterterrorism analysts warned this week of possible terrorist attacks in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago around Sept. 11, but officials cautioned on Thursday that they were skeptical about the seriousness of the threat.
The warning grew out of intelligence developed from an overseas source indicating that terrorists might seek to steal fuel tanker trucks in order to inflict "mass casualties" by staging an anniversary attack, officials said.
The information led F.B.I. joint terrorism task forces in Los Angeles and Newark to alert other government and law enforcement officials privately this week about the threat, law enforcement officials said. Several government officials in Washington who were briefed on the threat said it was described as credible and specific enough to warrant attention.
But other law enforcement officials in Washington and New York said that while they were aware of the warnings and were concerned about the Sept. 11 anniversary, they remained somewhat skeptical about the latest threat.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was planning to send out another confidential law enforcement bulletin on Thursday to qualify the earlier one and emphasize that the threat of a possible tanker attack had not been verified.
"The information is uncorroborated, and the source is of questionable reliability," said Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. "This information continues to be evaluated by the intelligence community."
There were no immediate plans to raise the national threat level, although urban transit systems remain on higher alert after last month's subway attacks in London.
Domestic security officials have long thought that tanker trucks could be used in terrorist attacks. New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are considered at the top of potential targets, along with Washington and Las Vegas, because of their size, high profiles, symbolic value and past plots by Al Qaeda.
New York City's police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, said in a statement that the department was aware of the threat.
"The New York City Police Department already has measures in place to protect against truck bombs and other threats," Mr. Kelly said. "We are expanding those measures, not in response to this latest information, but as part of ongoing refinements to our overall counter terrorism posture."
Paul J. Browne, the department's chief spokesman, said that for the last three and a half years the department had had a high-profile program for stopping trucks in the financial district in Lower Manhattan, which was intensified after the London attacks. "And you can expect to see even more throughout the city in the months ahead," Mr. Browne said.
Another law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the matter, called the information in the advisory "a generic threat," adding, "There is no great level of confidence in the credibility of the source."
The official noted that the New York Police Department had long been concerned about the use of trucks as weapons, and that while little credence was given to the advisory it prompted officials to re-examine the threat posed by trucks.
"There is nothing that would cause us to react to the particular threat," the official said. "What we are reacting to is the generic nature of the threat."
"Trucks have been talked about by Al Qaeda all the time," the official said. "They used that tactic around the world, so we're using this as an opportunity to fine-tune our strategy."
In 2002, Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for killing 21 people in a suicide attack on a Tunisian synagogue by a man driving a fuel truck.
The Los Angeles police chief, William J. Bratton, said his department had been made aware of the information several days ago.
"Our counterterrorism bureau already looks at any reports of stolen or missing trucks that carry anything hazardous," Mr. Bratton said. "The L.A.P.D.'s traffic coordination section has stepped up random checks of large vehicles. This stream of reporting is similar to others we've seen since 9/11."
The original alert, issued by an F.B.I. terrorism task force in Los Angeles on Wednesday, warned that "Al Qaeda leaders plan to employ various types of fuel trucks as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices in an effort to cause mass casualties in the U.S. prior to the 19th of Sept," according to a law enforcement official who had read it. "Attacks are planned specifically for New York ,Chicago and Los Angeles. It is unclear whether the attacks will occur simultaneously or be spread out over a period of time, and the goal of the attack is to collapse the U.S. economy," it said.
It also warned that terrorists would seek to hijack gasoline tankers or trucks hauling oxygen and ram them into a gasoline station to cause major explosions. Although F.B.I. officials have previously said that they have no conclusive evidence that Al Qaeda has sleeper cells in the United States, the alert asserted that "the attackers will be members of small Al Qaeda cells which are spread throughout the U.S."
In interviews, law enforcement officials acknowledged concern about possible attacks timed with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"There's always that possibility, and it's something we always look at very closely because it is such a symbolic day," said a senior Justice Department official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of concerns about disclosing classified material.
The significance of the Sept. 19 date mentioned in the F.B.I. alert was not made clear. Officials said they were also concerned that attacks might be timed around the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts on Oct. 4.
The split in opinion about how seriously to treat the latest report reflected the continued uncertainty in the federal government over how far it should go in responding to what may be unclear threats - at the risk of alarming an already skittish public.
The Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I. have stepped up their ability to collect and analyze information on possible threats and spread it quickly to federal, state and local officials.
But some local law enforcement officials say they are still not getting all of the information they need from the federal government, leading some police departments to form their own informal intelligence network to share terrorist information. Federal officials have also had several false alarms that became public, and the elevation of the threat level last summer after reports about possible attacks on financial centers in New York and Washington led to accusations that the move was politically motivated in advance of the presidential election.
"We get threat information all the time, and this comes in the normal course of doing business," said an F.B.I. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the threat assessments publicly.
As for the analysts' report of a possible September attack, he said, "We consider this unsubstantiated, uncorroborated information."